You can tell Bangkok is a food city long before you take a single bite.
Food is everywhere in the Thai metropolis. It’s in malls and food courts, providing students with a place to hang out. It’s in fancy cafés, where the Thai elite enjoy a hip dining atmosphere. But it’s mostly in the streets, everywhere you look, at every hour of the day. Tiny kitchens spill out onto the sidewalk, and pushcarts offer quick meals that fill the roads with smells of roasted pork, boiling noodles, fresh lemongrass and eye-watering spices.
Yet despite its reputation as one of the finest cuisines in the world, very few travelers get to enjoy Thailand’s food at street level. It’s sad to witness the backpackers flooding the English-speaking stalls of Thanon Khao San, ordering toned down, unimaginative takes on Thai street food, seemingly afraid to venture beyond the tourist ghetto.
Good thing I’m not one of them!
The Beat of a Different Crowd
A mere five minutes outside the Khao San area, young Thais on the lookout for a decent meal quickly replace wandering tourists. Here, your dishes come with the omnipresent Thai condiments of roasted chilli flakes, spicy vinegar, sugar and fermented fish sauce. A hearty meal sets you back thirty bahts, less than one US dollar. Look out for packed open-air restaurants or street stalls, and they’ll reward you with fiery, delicious thrills.
Helene and I found such a place on our first foray outside the backpacker area, following the flow of young Thais celebrating Loi Krathong by setting off paper hot-air balloons into the Bangkok sky. Many of them packed a cramped open-air restaurant, whose tiny kitchen at the entrance was manned by four women whose hands blurred with the speed of experience. We inched our way in, and sat at the long table.
Navigating the menu couldn’t have been any easier: you got one dish and one dish only, and it came in either small or large. The dish in this case was a thick, peppery broth filled with fresh rice noodles and slices of pork and fish balls. It was better than good: it made my mind wander with awe, pondering how something so simple could be executed with such perfection and finesse.
When one of the girls put down a fresh pot of chilli flakes before me, the nutty, roasted smell overtook my reason; an instant later I was sweating profusely under the onslaught of Thai pepper.
We ate scanning the reviews – all in Thai – that hung on the walls. We had lucked out: this place was good enough for the locals to seek it out and rave about it in newspapers. We finished our soup, and the moment we left our plastic seats, they were filled by a new pair of customers.
Crossing the Bridge
The next evening, our quest for fresh food took us further from the backpacker ghetto, to Victory Monument, where a night market – an evening collection of small street stalls – lured us from the skytrain above.
Deciding where to eat in Thailand is a tortuous process. Food is everywhere, and very rarely does it smell anything but absolutely fresh. What’s more, the variety is staggering: what we call ‘Thai food’ in the West is but a small subset of the spectrum on offer, from Chinese-inspired noodles and curries, to the fermented pork sausage of Thailand’s Isan province. The only constants are freshness, and an execution that is beautiful in its simplicity. Stop and watch a street hawker as they prepare their signature dish: they have been plying their trade for so long, their technique would awe a five-star chef.
We found a street stall with tables sprawled over a bridge crossing one of the city’s many waterways. The place was packed, and we had to hustle to secure a spot. We gestured ‘two’, knowing what would come would be good, whatever it turned out to be. We were rewarded with noodles in a thick curry sauce, and a mountain of fresh herbs to go with it.
A City of Foodies
These are but two of the legion of small, efficient, delicious street kitchens and open-air restaurants that Bangkok has to offer. Even after living in China for three years, I am amazed at how much fresh food the Thais enjoy at every opportunity.
I could tell you how to find these two specific restaurants, but… that would miss the point. This is not about one spot, one vendor that is worth a visit; the entire city of Bangkok is worth it. If you find yourself in the capital of Thailand, resist the cheap lures of the backpacker district, or the illusory comfort of upscale, English-speaking restaurants. Head out deep into the alleyways and the side-streets.
Bangkok rewards a healthy appetite and a spirit of exploration.
Invariably, when I talk about street food, I get asked how I avoid an upset stomach. Some guides will tell you to only eat in five-star restaurants, but at that point you might as well stay home and order pizza. Truth is, I almost always eat at small restaurants or street stalls, and besides a very rare upset stomach, I never get sick from food. Thailand is pretty safe in terms of food hygiene, so it’s a good place to start exploring the streets and work up an appetite. Here are some simple advice:
Invariably, when I talk about street food, I get asked how I avoid an upset stomach. Some guides will tell you to only eat in five-star restaurants, but at that point you might as well stay home and order pizza. Truth is, I almost always eat at small restaurants or street stalls, and besides a very rare upset stomach, I never get sick from food.
Thailand is pretty safe in terms of food hygiene, so it’s a good place to start exploring the streets and work up an appetite. Here are some simple advice: